In this country we're not too inventive with bread once it's past its best. On the continent they're much more creative, though it does help if you are in a country rich with good quality oil, and ripe tomatoes. A supply of breadcrumbs in the freezer is always useful for a variety of things, but I must confess that here, once a loaf has gone stale it does tend to find itself on the bird table.
If you're a follower of this column, you'll get the bread theme, but you may be a little perplexed by the Vermeer image. Many of you will know it as The Milkmaid. That's actually a misnomer as the lady in question is a kitchen maid. But look at the painting more closely. What exactly is she doing? The caption at the recent exhibition in the Rijksmuseum suggests that she was probably making a bread pudding. Voilà!
One of the earliest known recipes for bread and butter pudding comes from Eliza Smith's The Compleat Housewife. That was published in 1728, some 70 years after it was being made in Vermeer's kitchen. It's probably never been out of fashion, though Anton Mosimann took it to a higher level in the 1980s. He added apricot jam, used not one but two vanilla pods and used less bread than the traditional version. And his recipe used brioche rolls not stale white bread.
There are many recipes about, and a fair few variations on a theme. As we're talking about a good old British tradition, what better port of call than one of the truly great cookery books, Gary Rhodes' New British Classics? Variations on the theme include cinnamon or nutmeg, mixed peel (Prue Leith), candied lemon or orange peel (Delia Smith) or apricot jam (Anton Mosimann).
It's better with white bread. While the tradition may have been to make this to use up stale stuff, it will be dryer and heavier. Many recipes call for unsalted butter, but our Anton chucks in a pinch of salt, so use what you have to hand. It's nicer with real vanilla, but you can use a few drops of vanilla extract if you're a cheapskate. (After this article was first posted I was discussing it with great friend and culinary superstar DMcL. She suggested using hot cross buns for some extra fruit and spice. Genius idea,)
12 slices of white bread; 50g butter, softened for easy spreading, plus extra for greasing the bowl; 8 egg yolks; 175g caster sugar, plus extra for topping; 1 vanilla pod; 300ml full fat milk; 300ml double cream; 25g raisins; 25g sultanas.
Grease a 1.75 litre pudding basin with butter. Butter the bread, then cut off the crusts and slice the bread in half diagonally.
To make the custard, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl. Put the seeds of the vanilla pod into a pan with the milk and cream the bring to a gentle simmer. Sieve the liquid onto the egg yolks. Do this a little at a time, stirring continuously. You don't want scrambled egg. If you've done it right there's your custard. Make layers of bread with the raisins and the sultanas. The final layer must be bread only. If you put fruit on top it will burn.
Preheat the oven to 180˚C/Mark 4. Create a bain marie by filling a roasting tin three quarters full of warm water. Pour the custard over the bread and fruit. Gary recommends leaving it to soak in for 20 minutes before cooking. Cover the pudding with foil, place in the bain marie in the oven and bake for 20 - 30 minutes until the mixture starts to set. You don't want it too dry.
When your pudding has set, remove the foil, dust it (the pud, not the foil, doh!) liberally with caster sugar then put it under a medium grill until the sugar starts to caramelise.